October 1943-May 1945
The Allies made rapid progress in Italy after the fall of Salerno. On the east coast Eighth Army pushed northwards from Brindisi and Taranto to Bari, which fell on 22nd September 1943. Five days later Foggia, with its complex of airfields, was also captured. It was not until Montgomery’s men reached the River Biferno that they encountered serious opposition, but from this point the campaign became a fight for the numerous river lines that traversed Italy. However, despite fighting relentlessly, the Germans were unable to stem the advance of the Eighth Army which enjoyed enormous superiority in men, munitions and supplies.
The pattern was similar on the west coast. After the fall of Naples the Germans withdrew to Volturno and then, under continued pressure from the Fifth Army, to the River Garigliano.
In December preparations for the Normandy landings resulted in significant changes to the high command of Allied forces in the Mediterranean. Generals Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley returned to England while General Sir Henry Maitland-Wilson took over as theatre commander and Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese succeeded Montgomery as commander of Eighth Army. Several formations were also withdrawn to form the core of the D Day invasion force, but the Allies still enjoyed a superiority of 20 divisions to the Germans 10 in southern Italy.
The Battle of Garigliano began on the night of 17th/18th January 1944, but the Allies made little progress. On 2nd February 50,000 British and American troops, under General Mark Clark, landed at Anzio further up the west coast. However, instead of pushing inland and severing the Germans’ supply lines to Garigliano, Clark ordered his troops to dig in and consolidate his beachhead, a cautious approach which seriously impeded the Allied advance. The lessons of Anzio were not lost on Allied planners who were determined that a similar situation did not develop after the Normandy landings.
Meanwhile, along the Garigliano, the Germans dug in at the mountain fortress of Cassino. The Allies launched a major attack on the little town on 29th January but it petered out a few days later. The Abbey of St Benedict, perched on the top of Monte Cassino, was superbly placed to observe the battlefield below and was clearly a thorn in the Allies’ side. On 15th February 254 bombers turned the abbey into a heap of rubble, but failed to destroy the German bunkers and strongpoints within it. After another day’s bombing, the Allies mounted a fresh attack on 18 February. This, too, failed in terrible conditions which had begun to resemble the trench warfare of the First World War.
Another unsuccessful attack on 18th March saw supporting tanks become bogged down in water-filled craters and it was not until 17th May that Cassino finally fell to the Polish Corps. The same unit went on to capture Monastery Hill the following day. At the same time the Allies finally broke out from Anzio but failed to cut the German lines of communication. Indeed, so obsessed was Clark with getting to Rome first, that he allowed the bulk of German forces in the region to escape northwards.
Rome fell on 4th June 1944, prompting US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to comment: ‘The first Axis capital is in our hands. One down and two to go!’
From June to August 1944, the Allies advanced north of Rome and captured Florence. They then closed on the Gothic Line, the Germans’ last major defensive position which ran from just above Pisa on the west coast, along the Apennine Mountains chain, to the Adriatic coast just south of Rimini.
On 25th August the Allies launched Operation Olive, a major offensive against the Gothic Line. Although the line was breached on both Fifth and Eighth Army fronts there was no decisive breakthrough. This was a blow to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who – despite the opposition of the Americans – had hoped that breaching the Gothic Line would open the way for an Allied advance northeastwards into Austria and Hungary, thereby forestalling any Russian advance into Eastern Europe.
A further round of command changes in October saw Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery succeed Leese as commander of Eighth Army. Meanwhile, General Clark took over command of all Allied ground troops in Italy from General Sir Harold Alexander who replaced Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson as Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. Lieutenant General Lucian K Truscott succeeded Clark as commander of Fifth Army.
The winter and spring of 1944 – 45 saw much partisan activity in northern Italy. There were two Italian governments during this period (one pro-Allies, the other pro-German), so the partisan struggle swiftly assumed many of the characteristics of a civil war.
Bad weather, heavy losses during the autumn and the need to transfer some British troops to Greece and northwest Europe meant the Allies adopted a strategy of ‘offensive defence’ in early 1945 while they planned for a final attack when conditions improved. That offensive duly came in late February – early March 1945 when the US IV Corps battled across minefields in the Apennines to draw level with the US II Corps on their right. They followed this by pushing the Germans from the strongpoint of Monte Castello which guarded the approaches to Bologna.
After attacks against enemy shipping in Venice harbour, the Allies launched their final offensive on 9th April 1945. Eighth Army forces in the east broke through the Argenta Gap and sent armour racing forward to link up with the US IV Corps advancing from Apennines in central Italy, trapping the defenders of Bologna which fell on 21st April. The following day the Americans reached the River Po.
With the Germans now retreating on all fronts, the Italian Partisans’ Committee of Liberation announced a general uprising. At the same time Eighth Army units advanced towards Venice and Trieste while US elements of Fifth Army headed north toward Austria and Milan and west on Genoa and Turin.
On 29th April 1945 General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had taken over as commander of German forces following the transfer of General Kesselring had been transferred to become Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front, surrendered to the Allies. Hostilities formally ended on 2nd May 1945.